Posted tagged ‘contact hours’

University studies: how often should you see a lecturer?

April 30, 2013

I have to tell you that I was, at least at the beginning, a very eager student. I had been working for two years in a bank (yes, I know, these days that’s like saying I was a drug pusher), and then decided to go to university. I was accepted for my course in June 1974. The letter confirming my admission gave the name of my tutor. I took this to mean it was time to contact him, and so on 22 June of that year, some three and a half months before the course was due to begin, I knocked on his door. My tutor (actually a wonderful man) was startled and told me that he could not remember any student ever having previously contacted him so early. When the course did begin, I probably startled him a few times because I was in and out of his office constantly. Swot!

Anyway, back to the June 1974 meeting. I asked my tutor-to-be how many classroom hours I could expect once studies began. ‘My word, what an unusual question’ was his response. It turned out that I could expect five hours per week, occasionally six. And so I sailed through my studies. I decided this wasn’t stretching me, so by year 2 I had also enrolled as a student in a completely different subject at another local university, thereby signing up for two degree programmes at two universities at once. But that’s a different story.

Of course university studies are not all about ‘contact hours’. Higher education is not the same as secondary education, and students should read and analyse and assess outside of their formal teaching, and beyond its demands. However, those offering public comment don’t always see it that way. A recent article in the Daily Mail (which is not  newspaper I would refer to often) criticised a number of universities for giving students ‘a very raw deal’ and suggested they were not offering good value for money because of the (in their view) inadequate provision of classes. The University of York, they claimed, offered history students fewer than 100 contact hours per year, less than a third of the hours offered to history students at University College London or Northampton University. If the number of hours spent with a lecturer determines quality, then you must study physics at Imperial College London, where you’ll get 516 hours.

So how much does this matter, and what is the significance? The answer is, we don’t know, because we don’t know what learning methods or other pedagogical tools are in use at any of these institutions; we cannot tell whether we are comparing like with like. But more significantly, we have no real shared understanding of what ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ should really look like today. Students are not the same species today as they were in 1974; many of them are now in what we would classify as full-time employment at the same time as doing their studies. Teaching tools, including technological ones, are very different now, and different use is made of them from course to course and from institution to institution.

But we must be aware that those commenting on universities may not be inclined to weigh up all these complex issues. They want to assess our productivity, and they go for what they can easily understand and measure. This may have the effect of condemning some dedicated academics, who are actually working very hard to provide students with good learning and strong support. However, institutions need to get better at explaining what they do, and how it meets students’ real needs. And perhaps we need to accept that, in some cases, students actually are getting less than they need. Perhaps.

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What should universities do with ‘contact hours’?

July 30, 2012

For the past few years a big search has been on to find the most useful key performance indicators with which to judge the performance of universities. So the view has been expressed by politicians and in the media that there must be some metrics which most accurately reveal the productivity of the academy. One that is getting much more attention is the concept of ‘contact hours’. This is an indicator that discloses the number of hours per week during which students experience formal teaching or tutorial support.

This is not an entirely pointless exercise. When I was President of Dublin City University we were able to establish a pretty unambiguous link between student attendance at classes and examination performance. But attendance at what, exactly? There are growing doubts in some circles about the usefulness of large lectures, in part because as a medium for transmitting knowledge it has been overtaken by the internet and other freely available sources, and in part because lectures are seen as too passive a learning method. On the other hand, small group tutorials and seminars are seen as being much more effective tools, not least because they are more participative and allow greater monitoring of individual student performance.

But then again, as higher education funding dips, large group classes are much more economical and may allow the idea to be sustained that students are enjoying a sufficient number of ‘contact hours’, even if the pedagogical value of the exercise may be more debatable.

All this is part of the growing uncertainty as to what universities should actually be doing to allow students to have the best possible educational experience. As all the accumulated assumptions and traditions of higher education crumble, and as the academy faces serious scepticism from its stakeholders, it has become more and more difficult to develop a confident and well judged pedagogical framework. Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliché, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.

Meeting students face to face – but how?

June 3, 2011

About a year ago when I took part in a discussion about higher education reform one non-university participant kept asking us about ‘contact hours’. How many of these would a student experience, and what preparations would be needed. It’s one of those questions that you cannot answer satisfactorily, because there is no single answer. It depends on the discipline, and on the lecturer, and on the learning technologies now being developed. But in the end I offered the information that, when I still taught, on average I had eight or so class contact hours per week. Overall a student might have anything between eight and sixteen weekly contact hours in my subject area.

My friend was shocked, truly shocked. What did the students do the rest of the time? Did they feel cheated? Was the taxpayer being cheated? What should be done, and quickly? I suggested to him that he was looking at universities as if they were just slightly more advanced secondary schools. Yes, he said, ‘what’s wrong with that?’

Of course one of the key objectives of higher education is to stimulate independent learning, and it is expected that a lot of this goes on outside of the formal teaching sessions. But what was shocking my friend was that, if this was so, we seemed to be detaching ourselves from the students and their direct needs. I explained to him that this was going to change further, dramatically, and that it might not involve more contact hours. Demographics and technology, I suggested, would require very different teaching methods.

I think my friend was thoroughly unconvinced. But in the course of the conversation it struck me how little he knew about higher education and how it really worked. Is it time for the universities to open up a bit more and to explain what we are and what we do, and what benefits the citizens derive? We must explain that the very negative views sometimes expressed about higher education are not reasonable. We must set out a public vision of universities and so begin to change the nature of the debate.

‘Contact hours’ – the new dilemma

June 17, 2010

For anyone working in a higher education institution, one of the messages they they will have been hearing with increasing frequency is that the general public believes that academics don’t work enough. To put it more precisely, there is a view out there that a university lecturer spends too much time doing other stuff, perhaps even important stuff, but far too little time actually teaching anyone or offering students direct help and support. This reached a kind of climax when Batt O’Keeffe, while still Minister for Education, announced that he had been told by ‘two senior academics’ that university lecturers only taught four hours per week.

The fact is that he is not alone in believing something like this to be true. Other key stakeholders, and members of the general public – even when not supported in their views by two senior academics (whose personal workload certainly needs to be examined) – are also frequently reported to be sceptical about the extent to which university lecturers really earn their salaries.

Of course the academic community will want to deny the truth of these assertions, and will rightly point out that they are made without any real credible (or indeed any) evidence other than random anecdotes. The problem we face, however, is that we cannot respond with any greater credibility, because we too are inclined to conscript anecdotal evidence to the cause. So I might respond, for example, that the academics I know work for 60-70 hours per week, and many of them are able to respond to emails directly at midnight (demonstrating their very long working day). But that’s also not evidence. And given the state of the university sector, and moreover given the attitude of our funders and potential backers, we do need to be able to provide more hard data.

In many respects we are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Institutes of Technology, whose lecturers all have a contractual obligation to teach for 16 hours per week during the teaching term. University lecturers are under no such explicit contractual obligation. Of course 16 hours teaching isn’t 16 hours work, because the teaching needs to be prepared, student outputs need to be assessed, and so forth. If a university lecturer were under an obligation to teach this number of hours they could not possibly do any consistent research, and of course there is no research obligation in the Institutes.

But here is the dilemma. We need to be able to make a proper case, but in order to do so we need robust information and data. But collecting this would be very difficult, because I suspect it would encounter trade union resistance. Furthermore, if we had the data and published it, and if – as some are suggesting – this is used to impose a contractual minimum of contact hours for academics, that minimum would be seen by many as the maximum in a context of mutual distrust, and before we know it lecturers will actually work less than before as we will have lost the spirit of goodwill that keeps us going, even in hard times. On the other hand, if we do not have the data we will be victims of the ‘they don’t really work’ prejudice in the wider society, with possible funding and regulatory implications.

It seems to me that we must conduct this information gathering exercise, but do so carefully and with safeguards built in. But I don’t see the alternative, if we are to protect the universities’ position and the reputation of academics.